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You Can Take the Soviet Out of Russia…

Bwog staffer Juliya Butareva reviews Alexander Valdman’s show of contemporary painting at the InterArts gallery.

Alexander Valdman’s wife tells a story about how, while waiting to meet a friend on a street corner in Manhattan, she and her husband were suddenly accosted by a cop. As she politely answered the policeman’s questions, Valdman suppressed a fight-or-flight response that would have been appropriate, even necessary, in his home city of Odessa.

After graduating from the Soviet Union’s most prestigious art college in 1980, Valdman worked as one of his country’s top illustrators. Having had his fill of the questionable associations that came – and still come – with success there, he moved to Amsterdam. There, he rode a wave of popularity that Russian art enjoyed at the time, but criminal acquaintances and friction with the police, reminiscent of his days of Russia, soon followed. When he came to the United States ten years ago, he had not lost his skepticism or his street smarts.

The instability and sordidness of contemporary Russia life characterize Valdman’s works, like the two from his New Russia Series that are on display at the InterArt Gallery. In “Negotiation,” one unsuspecting, leather-clad thug leans against a wall while another approaches him with a gun. A baby carriage stands almost out of sight. Splattered paint, like lurid drops of blood over the sharp black-and-white drawing, foreshadows the inevitable conclusion. In “New Car,” the gleaming Mercedes sedan could still be on a showroom floor, but the broad, bulging criminal types beside it and the paint splashes all around warn of the car’s violent future. One thinks of blood, rain, and bullet holes – the usual wear a car suffers in the new Russia.

This sense of impending doom takes on a sexual character in the Red Light District Series. The prostitutes and their male admirers are bathed in garish neon light, but the feel of the works is oddly dark and claustrophobic. The prostitutes display themselves in closed windows and the men stand in narrow alleys. The men’s cruelly caricatured faces seem damaged – pitted and scarred, with blank mouths and eyes – as if just looking is enough to infect them with some disease.

Perhaps the most interesting works are those in which Valdman turns his eerie vision on the American experience. “Highway,” in which a cow’s skull watches over a big rig that seems to disintegrate as it hurtles along a mountain highway somewhere in the Midwest, suggests that these American symbols are doomed. There is no permanence, even in the roads and trucks of the long-since-won American West. Wide highways, free of Russian thugs, are no guarantee of anything.

To get there: take the 1 train to 23rd Street. Walk three blocks west to Tenth Avenue, then half a block north.

InterArt Gallery
225 Tenth Ave (between 23rd and 24th streets)
Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat.11:00 am-7:00 pm

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